Photo via TN

As the head of the universal Catholic Church, Pope Francis typically stays out of specific Argentine affairs (or at least, he’s supposed to). But yesterday he denounced the “mafia” that is commonly believed to dominate politics in Buenos Aires Province while speaking to the mayor of Merlo, a partido in said province. A video capturing his statements has since been widely circulated among local media.

Merlo Mayor Gustavo Menéndez was visiting the Vatican when Pope Francis’ bluntly asked him whether, “The mafia of [former Mayor Raúl] Othacehé bothered him.”

Surprised, Menéndez, a Victory Front (FpV) politician, responded that, “We are filing charges, we’re finishing filing the charges, we had a couple of attacks recently but we’ll pull through.”

Menéndez then changed the subject to a project in which he and several mayors want to turn the Pope’s encyclical, “Laudato Si,” into a bill on climate change. However, Pope Francis quickly brought the conversation back to Othacehé, saying that he was aware of said project and that he had been concerned for Menéndez due to that “mafia.”

“I suffered it firsthand. I had to go to Merlo to stop [Othacehé], to defend a priest,” continued Pope Francis.

Pope Francis was referring to an incident eight years ago, where he celebrated mass in the streets of Pontevedra in Merlo to support priest Miguel “Pancho” Velo, who was allegedly being threatened and slandered by Othacehé’s municipal government.

In an interview with Infobae, Menéndez clarifies that many priests were allegedly suffering from threats and intimidation from the local government and the issue is endemic to the area. One priest, Raúl Vila, also famously experienced personal libel, robbery and even assault after showing support for political activists who opposed Othacehé’s policies: for Vila, the people responsible were supporters of Othacehé.

Despite being from the same party as Menéndez, the Victory Front (FpV), Othacehé belonged to a different generation of politicians who had been in power since the ’90s in the partidos of Buenos Aires Province. These “barons,” as they were called, exerted control over generally poorer areas with what many regard to be corrupt patronage networks. Many of these barons were surprisingly dethroned in last year’s general elections. The most salient “mafia-like” action allegedly pushed by Othacehé recently was last year’s massive toma (the “taking” or seizure of land) in Merlo, which was considered indicative of a corrupt regime grasping at straws and trying to undermine the new administration.